In September 2017, I woke in the middle of the night to my husband telling me he couldn’t breathe. With no warning, he suffered a fatal asthma attack right before my very eyes. The experience left me reeling and I still shudder with horror when I think back to the days that followed, trying to wrap my head around the death of my husband while doing unimaginable tasks as we planned for his funeral.
I had been thrust into the world of bereavement, trauma and grief and I was no longer the same person. The days, weeks and months that followed were filled with deep pain, sorrow, anger, confusion and overwhelm.
As my world collapsed around me, I still had to work. After all, I was now a single mother who had to provide an income for our broken family. Even the most basic tasks felt hard. I could barely concentrate as my emotions ran wild and I desperately wanted to shut myself off from the world and my work, but it just wasn’t possible.
At the time I was running my own business and was able to work my hours and days around my grief.
But for many others, this is not their experience as they re-enter their workplaces while they navigate their loss.
Updating bereavement policies
According to Fair Work Australia, employees are entitled to two days compassionate leave (also known as bereavement leave) each time an immediate family or household member dies or suffers a life-threatening illness or injury. Anyone that has experienced a significant bereavement would know that two days paid leave barely touches the surface of such a huge loss.
In my own experience, I wasn’t equipped physically, mentally, or emotionally to attend any kind of public place, let alone the workplace, only two days after the death of my husband. In fact, I was barely able to do anything in the weeks that followed.
In a time when businesses are focusing on better parental leave policies and the wellbeing of their employees, bereavement leave appears to have been forgotten. Perhaps this is due to the often taboo and uncomfortable nature of this topic. However, the impact of grief is significant and vast, and unfortunately it is something all of us are likely to experience at one point or another.
Research suggests over a third of employees become more likely to leave their work after a significant bereavement, with 24% of employees wanting to leave specifically because they didn’t like the way the bereavement was handled. The way grief and bereavement are handled in the workplace is important when it comes to employee retention, their productivity and general wellbeing.
As it stands, many bereavement policies understand grief to be time-limited and generic and generally allow enough time to attend a funeral. In contrast, we are learning more and more that grief is not the linear experience we expect it to be, nor is it time limited, and it can have a huge toll on the mental and physical health of the employee experiencing loss.
While it helps that bereavement policies exist in Australia, they underestimate the grief journey and don’t allow for flexibility should an employee not be coping.
It’s time businesses rethink their bereavement policies and look at supporting their employees suffering loss. There are many ways this could look — whether it’s increased days of bereavement leave, or flexibility when someone re-enters the workplace in relation to the hours they work, or ensuring appropriate support systems are in place when it comes to their wellbeing.
When we recognise the devastating impact grief can have on employees and show up for them in a time of need, we demonstrate care, acknowledgement of the hard time they are facing, and allow them to grieve and heal in a supportive environment. Something a grieving person will always be grateful for.